Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Frederick Wiseman’s joyful new documentary celebrates the local branches as public space.
Before a recent screening of Ex Libris, the new film by octogenarian documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the chief branch librarian of the New York Public Library, Christopher Platt, stood in front of one of Film Forum’s darkened screens to say a few words.
“It's three hours of libraries,” Platt warned the crowd. (In fact, it’s even longer—three hours and 17 minutes.)
No need to flee: Ex Libris turns out to be riveting, a monument to the collections and people clustered inside the NYPL’s 88 branches. Chalk that up to the generosity and curiosity of Wiseman’s lens, and the filmmaker’s desire to cede the spotlight to patrons, guests, and staffers, who appear to be coexisting with the camera instead of performing for it. Over the course of weeks spent embedded in the library’s buildings, Wiseman’s crew “became the fabric of the room,” Platt said.
Likewise, the film makes a compelling case that the library system is a central thread in the fabric of the city. The NYPL is the most bustling library system in the U.S. and the second in North America, surpassed only by Toronto. Wiseman visits many of the library’s branches, from the vaunted vaulted halls of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street to squatter outposts tucked among second-floor psychics’ dens and nail salons.
Lovers of vintage library gear will not leave this film empty-handed: There are a handful of delicious shots of patrons using magnifying glasses to enlarge looping, hand-scribbled letters in special collections, or hunched over a microfilm machine. (“I love the way those smell,” sighed someone in the row behind me.) But Ex Libris isn’t a documentary that submerges its subject in amber. While Wiseman marvels at the grandest of the buildings, capturing light and shadows skittering along its marble halls, most of the film centers on the way people claim the branches as extensions of their neighborhoods.
At the Jerome Park branch, kids drop in for homework help, figuring out math problems with computer games. One evening at the Westchester Square location, kids use code to coax little robots across the table. Art students leaf through clips at the Picture Collection, full of folders groaning with a century’s worth of images organized by subject (atomic detonations, pickles, dogs in action).
We tag along to all manner of events and tailored services: A branch in Lincoln Center put on a dramatic recitation of the Declaration of Independence in American Sign Language; a Chinatown branch offers English classes and shelves of Chinese DVDs. A visitor to the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library trails her index and middle finger along a page, learning to decipher the dots. We go inside a festive job expo at the Bronx Library Center, where a cast of recruiters sells attendees on careers from bricklaying to inspecting buildings’ fire panels. There are fitness classes, too: Picture sweet, geriatric gyrating to Kool and the Gang. A lecture in one inauspicious space offered an analysis of the deli as the nexus of second-generation Jewish life. (New York is called the Big Apple, the speaker noted, standing in front of a Powerpoint presentation, “but people want to eat a pastrami sandwich.”)
The film’s many minutes amount to a series of thoughtful and charming odes to knowledge. One favorite: a staffer on the Ask NYPL hotline explaining the etymology of the word “unicorn” to a caller. “I’ll have to translate this from Middle English,” he says, sincerely. “Which I’m a little poor in.”
Other scenes wrestle with the meaning and feasibility of the library as a public utility. How does it stay relevant? What does it owe its patrons? We often see the library’s senior staff, perched around a dark-wood conference table in business casual, dealing with the day-to-day management of a vast public-private partnership. They wonder about the scalability of broadband programs and fret over the months-long wait time for popular e-books. They try to imagine the future of the library, and how the institution should think of its branches as infrastructure assets, functioning as social services hubs and points of connectivity. How should librarians respond to homeless visitors? What do today’s kids and parents need to know in order to avoid drowning in the common core math requirements—and also to live a life fanned by curiosity and compassion?
Some critics have remarked that, despite the film’s title—which harkens back to nameplates pasted inside the front cover of one’s prized volumes—it ignores the jackpot of musty troves. Don’t believe it. Librarians flop open picture books for storytime, as kids and caregivers wriggle around mooing, clucking, and flapping like the creatures on Old MacDonald’s farm. Around a table, a group of elderly book-club members, their names scrawled on little placards, page through dog-eared copies of Love in the Time of Cholera (one woman in chunky glasses suggests that a better title would be “Lovemaking in the Time of Cholera”). The people who help transport all those volumes from place to place get their due, too, when the camera captures the assembly line on which they furiously sort and process materials like so many shrink-wrapped chickens.
But fundamentally, the film isn’t concerned with bound copies, however beloved. Like so many previous Wiseman film, from High School and Hospital in the beginning of his career to the more recent State Legislature and In Berkeley, Ex Libris an unhurried inquiry into institutions and what makes them tick. It’s also a film about the joy of shared spaces and the people who flock to them—and about the pleasure and power of learning itself.
In one early scene, a crowd has flooded the marble lobby of the 42nd Street branch to listen to Richard Dawkins elucidate the overlap of biology and poetry and “the stupefying complexity of every living cell.” Wiseman’s camera takes stock of the cells and bodies that have gathered in space to listen together; the lens spends a few moments with a handful of attendees, hovering on furrowed brows, cocked heads, or chins resting in cupped palms. Words are often imagined to be transportive, ferrying readers off into worlds of quests and duels, or plopping them down on far-away shores or imagined planets. Wiseman’s film seems to say that words, and the institutions devoted to them, also anchors, mooring patrons as they find their footing and work to understand their world.
“I hope you're all library users,” Platt said, before the film began. Cheers rippled through the crowd. If visitors didn't have a library card, he added, there was a branch just up the block.
Ex Libris is screening at select theaters across North America this fall, from Detroit to Toronto to Portland and Tallahassee. Click here for show dates and times.